“… a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace…”
President Barack Obama
Global Ambassador for Peace
By Ben Sales
TEL AVIV (JTA) – The Phoenix of Israeli politics, Shimon Peres continually reinvented himself as the country changed.
He began his career in the Defense Ministry and was the architect of Israel’s nuclear program, but in his later years Peres was more closely identified with the quest for peace with the Palestinians. He was instrumental in negotiating the Oslo Accords, the landmark Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and was present on the White House lawn for its signing in 1993.
Though he served as prime minister three times without ever winning an election outright, and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for a peace that has yet to materialize, Peres emerged late in life as Israel’s beloved elder statesmen and a rare figure capable of uniting a fractious society.
Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, Peres emerged as Israel’s global ambassador for peace, predicting the emergence of a “new Middle East” in which conflict was supplanted by shared prosperity. Elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in 2007, talk of peace pervaded nearly every speech he gave. Well into his 90s, Peres still insisted he would live to see the day when peace would come.
Peace, however, doomed his political career. After middling political success in the 1980s, the Oslo Accords debilitated Peres’ Labor Party, which fell from power in 2001 with the outbreak of the second intifada and has yet to win another election. When Peres won the presidency in 2007, he was a member of Kadima, a short-lived centrist party.
As president, Peres rose again, this time as Israel’s wise old man. Free to rise above the political fray, Peres trumpeted Israel’s technological achievements and articulated its hopes for a brighter future. More than anything, he became a symbol of the country’s resilience — able to survive, thrive and remain optimistic — no matter the challenges.
“Shimon devoted his life to our nation and to the pursuit of peace,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement following Peres’ death. “He set his gaze on the future. He did so much to protect our people. He worked to his last days for peace and a better future for all. As Israel’s President, Shimon did so much to unite the nation. And the nation loved him for it.”
Born Szymon Perski in Wiszniewo, Poland, in 1923, Peres moved with his family to Tel Aviv in 1934. At 20, he became the head of a Labor Zionist youth group, through which he met David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister. In 1945, Peres married Sonya Gelman, who had just returned from World War II service in the British Army.
The couple was married for 67 years, though they separated after Peres became a presidential candidate. Sonya Peres had long refused to play the part of political wife, and after Peres moved to the president’s residence in Jerusalem, she changed the name on her Tel Aviv mailbox to Sonya Gal, a Hebraicized version of her maiden name. Sonya Peres died in 2011 at 87.
In 1947, Peres joined the Haganah, managing arms purchases and personnel. After Israel gained independence the following year, he continued working in the Defense Ministry, becoming its youngest-ever director-general in 1952 at 29. In that capacity he expanded Israeli arms purchases from France and later helped manage the 1956 Sinai Campaign. He also founded Israel’s arms production industry and led efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
Peres was first elected to the Knesset in 1959 with Ben-Gurion’s ruling Mapai party, becoming deputy defense minister. He would serve in the Knesset for an as-yet unmatched total of 48 years. Peres remained a close Ben-Gurion ally, splitting from Mapai with him in 1965 to form a rival party and then rejoining Mapai when it became the Alignment in 1968.
After serving in several minor ministerial positions, Peres became defense minister in 1974 under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peres was a territorial hawk, opposing early proposals for West Bank withdrawal and supporting settlement expansion. When Rabin resigned amid scandal in 1977, Peres briefly became acting prime minister, then lost the post when the Alignment was defeated in the 1977 election by Menachem Begin’s Likud party.
Peres headed the Alignment — the precursor to today’s Labor Party — for the next 15 years, contesting three more close elections with Likud. The two parties formed a unity government following the 1984 elections — Peres was prime minister from 1984 to 1986, then foreign minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from 1986 to 1988.
As foreign minister in 1987, Peres conducted secret negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank as part of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. But Shamir rejected the proposed agreement, and the following year Jordan unilaterally relinquished its claim to the West Bank.
After the Alignment lost the 1988 elections, Peres again joined a Likud-led government as finance minister, but tried to overthrow the government two years later. In what became known as the Dirty Trick, Peres assembled an Alignment-led coalition with leftist and haredi Orthodox parties, only to see it fall apart after he received a mandate to form a governing coalition. He lost his party’s chairmanship to Rabin in 1992, and again became foreign minister when the party, now renamed Labor, won elections that year.
Under Rabin, Peres was the architect of the Oslo Accords, which gave the Palestinians autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“Israel’s role in the Middle East should be to contribute to a great, sustained regional revival,” Peres said upon accepting the prize. “A Middle East without wars, without enemies, without ballistic missiles, without nuclear warheads.”
After Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Peres became acting prime minister, but lost the post again in a close race with Likud’s Netanyahu. Following his defeat in ‘96, he founded the Peres Center for Peace, which runs programs aimed at regional reconciliation.
Peres remained in the Labor Party through 2005, twice regaining the chairmanship and serving another stint as foreign minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In 2006, following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Peres joined Sharon’s new centrist Kadima party.
The next year he won a race for Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency. As president, Peres stayed largely above the political fray, though he conducted secret negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011, culminating in a peace deal that Netanyahu’s government rejected. After leaving the presidency, Peres remained largely silent on politics.
Peres frequently traveled internationally as president, focusing his speeches and activism on encouraging Middle East peace and touting Israel’s technological achievements. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. Peres’ annual Presidential Conference brought together leaders in politics, science and culture. He finished his presidential term in 2014.
He is survived by three children, Tsvia Walden, Yoni Peres and Chemi Peres, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever,” Obama said Tuesday night in a statement. “Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace, and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves — to the very end of our time on Earth, and in the legacy that we leave to others.”
Saying goodbye to Shimon Peres, world leaders talk peace and love
By Andrew Tobin
JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israeli and world leaders gathered atop Mount Herzl Friday, Sept. 30 to say goodbye to Shimon Peres, Israel’s last founding father.
In addition to fond personal recollections, many of those who took the stage alongside Peres’ Israeli-flag-draped coffin, offered their visions of the peace that eluded the former president and prime minister. Peres died early Wednesday at the age of 93 after being hospitalized for a major stroke.
President Barack Obama, the last of the 10 speakers on the day, called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ presence in the front row “a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”
“[Peres] believed the Zionist idea would be best protected when Palestinians too had a state of their own,” Obama said. “The region is going through a chaotic time. Threats are ever-present. And yet, he did not stop dreaming and he did not stop working. … Now the work of peace-making is in the hands of Israel’s next generation and its friends.”
Before the funeral ceremony began, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas shook hands beneath two jumbo screens showing photos of Peres over the years. The two leaders have not formally met since 2010, during the last failed round of U.S.-brokered peace talks.
“It’s been a long time since we last met,” Abbas reportedly told Netanyahu.
“I very much appreciate that you came to the funeral,” Netanyahu replied.
But Abbas was not among the leaders Netanyahu greeted in his emotional eulogy of Peres, whom he described engaging in “nearly night-long discussions” about which came first — peace or security. Netanyahu thought security, Peres peace, he said.
“We were both right,” Netanyahu concluded. “Peace will not be achieved other than by permanently preserving our power. But power is not an end in itself. It is not the real power. It’s a means to an end. The goal is to ensure our national existence and coexistence.”
Among the estimated 4,000 mourners who gathered under a sprawling white tent at Israel’s national cemetery were dozens of foreign dignitaries, including France’s President Francois Hollande, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Britain’s Prince Charles and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Israeli politicians attended from across the political spectrum. Yair Lapid, head of the center-left Yesh Atid party, arrived with left-wing Labor party Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich. Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick, an advocate for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, came with a bodyguard. A Palestinian gunman nearly killed him in 2014.
Jewish billionaires and fierce Israel backers Chaim Saban and Sheldon and Miriam Adelson of Nevada were also on hand.
Former President Bill Clinton, who brokered the Olso Accords that Peres helped spearhead in an effort to make peace with the Palestinians, referenced John Lennon’s peace anthem in his eulogy.
“Shimon could imagine all the people living in the world in peace,” Clinton said. “In his honor I ask that we remember his luminous smile and imagine.”
Clinton was part of a 33-member strong American delegation, which included Secretary of State John Kerry but not his predecessor, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who some reports had said would attend. Security at the funeral and around Jerusalem was tight, with some 8,000 police officials guarding and closing streets.
Amos Oz, an esteemed Israeli writer and friend of Peres, argued a Palestinian state was not optional, saying there was “no choice but to divide this home into two apartments and turn it into a two-family house.”
“In their heart of hearts, all sides know this simple truth,” he said. “But where are the leaders with the courage to come forward to make it come to pass? Where are the heirs to Shimon Peres?”
With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year starting Sunday, David D’Or, a famous Israeli singer beloved by Peres, performed a rendition of the High Holiday prayer “Avinu Malkeinu”. Peres’ children then took the stage.
Peres’ younger son, Chemi Peres spoke briefly about his father in English, saying, “He saw in all of you leaders, friends and partners in his quest for peace. We will treasure his memory and honor his legacy.”
Switching to Hebrew, he said, “You kept your promise to your beloved grandfather, when you bid him farewell on your first stop on the way to the Land of Israel. You never forgot what it means to a Jew. And I promise you that neither will I.”
Notably missing from the funeral were Arab heads of state, though Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry came from Egypt, and Bahrain, Jordan and Oman were to send representatives. Arab-Israeli leaders also skipped the event and generally remained silent on Peres’ death.
By way of explanation, Aymen Odeh, the head of the Joint List of Arab political parties in Israel said on Army Radio Thursday,
“I can tell you that it is complicated.”
After the funeral, with military honors, Peres was buried between Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir, two former prime ministers with deeply conflicting views of Israel’s future. n
When Shimon Peres needed a speechwriter — and I needed a nap
By Ben Harris
(JTA) — It was 9 o’clock on a weekday evening and I was lounging around my Brooklyn apartment in pajamas when the call came summoning me to a Midtown Manhattan hotel. Shimon Peres needed a speechwriter; I was a speechwriter at the time for Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
It was the fall of 2001, and Peres was in town for the annual traffic nightmare known as the U.N. General Assembly, when heads of state travel to New York City for a multi-day exercise in marathon speechmaking. Israel’s participation in this ritual was a study in inefficiency, confusion, loose planning, and the expected jostling for proximity and access.
When I arrived, the entire entourage was attending the Broadway hit “Mamma Mia!” and for the better part of an hour I sat around smoking cigarettes with a handful of secretaries and security men.
Eventually a member of Peres’ security detail — blue suit, buzz cut, ear piece — walked in and asked which of us was Ben Harris. I identified myself and followed the man down the hall, where he opened a door, pushed me inside and closed it behind me. That’s how I came face to face with Peres, who was clad in a sleeveless white T-shirt and in bare feet.
“Mi atah?” he asked me — “Who are you?” — in that rich baritone I had heard on TV so many times.
In my meek Hebrew, I stammered that I was the speechwriter, and we spent what felt like an interminable awkward minute sizing up one another.
Eventually, Alon Pinkus, then Israel’s consul general in New York, walked in and got the show on the road. For the next hour, Peres dictated his speech to me. Though already pushing 80, Peres was an old hand at this stuff, and the florid metaphors flowed effortlessly. I struggled to keep up.
When it was over, Peres retired for the night and I spent the wee hours polishing and pruning. Sometime before dawn, I submitted the final text and stumbled back to Brooklyn to bed.
In the General Assembly hall later that morning, I sat in the gallery seats with the rest of the Israeli delegation, who applauded mightily when Peres finished and yielded the stage to the foreign minister of Cambodia. Afterward, we trailed him through the hallways as he made small talk with other government officials in multiple languages.
At some point, someone thrust the two of us together for a photo op — me in my rumpled suit, giddy and still buzzing from the all-nighter, Peres looking slightly bored after what must have been his thousandth handshake and smile that day.
Weeks later, as my tenure at Israel’s U.N. mission was winding down and grad school applications littered my desk, I worked up the chutzpah to see if my service to Israel’s foreign minister might merit me a recommendation. The administrative people in New York told me to dream on, but miraculously some months later the letter arrived. It was all of four sentences long and included two typos, and I had to make a special request to the London School of Economics to add it to my file months after the deadline.
Still, it did the trick. I got in.
Connecticut native Ben Harris is a longtime reporter and editor for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He currently runs Root Down Farm, an organic vegetable CSA based in West Hartford. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and New York magazine, among other publications.
In rare tribute, Obama orders flags flown at half-staff for Peres
(JTA) — Prior to heading to Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres, President Barack Obama announced that American flags would be flown at half-staff, a rare honor for foreign leaders. In a proclamation late Wednesday, Sept. 28, the President ordered the flags to fly at “half-staff at the White House and on all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions” through sunset Friday, Sept. 30.
“I also direct that the flag shall be flown at half-staff for the same period at all United States embassies, legations, consular offices, and other facilities abroad, including all military facilities and naval vessels and stations,” the proclamation said.
A flag flown at half-staff for a foreign leader is rare. Obama ordered the honor after the death of Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa out of apartheid, in 2013. Prior to that, the last such foreign leader honored was Pope John Paul II, in 2005 by President George W. Bush.